ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Chuck Stafford was watching the Atlanta Falcons rout the Green Bay Packers for the NFC title when bad weather suddenly began to pound his mobile home in southern Georgia.
Stafford, 74, had just gotten to head to the bathroom during Sunday’s football game when the wind started whipping the mobile home park in Albany where he has lived for 31 years. His home started shaking violently.
The gusts blew the windows out of Stafford’s trailer, spraying shattered glass everywhere. But he was lucky.
“I grabbed hold of my washer and dryer, got my legs spread apart and hunched over,” Stafford said. “I guess I picked a good time to go to the bathroom.”
Stafford was among residents in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina who were trying to pick up the pieces left behind by a powerful storm system that tore across the Deep South over the weekend, killing 19 people, including 15 in south Georgia. Rescuers were going through stricken areas Monday, searching for possible survivors.
Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said that a total of four people died Sunday in the county that includes Albany. Some 60 miles away, Coroner Tim Purvis in south Georgia’s Cook County confirmed seven people died at the mobile home park in the rural community of Adel, where about half of the 40 homes were leveled.
The 15 killed in south Georgia included two deaths each in the counties of Berrien and Brooks.
In South Carolina, the National Weather Service has confirmed that two tornadoes struck over the weekend, injuring one woman who was trapped in a mobile home that was damaged near Blackville. The weather service says a tornado touched down about 3:45 p.m. Saturday in Barnwell County and moved into Bamberg County. The other occurred in Orangeburg County a few minutes later.
Weather experts say tornadoes can hit any time of year in the South — including in the dead of winter. Even north Florida was under the weekend weather threat.
While the central U.S. has a fairly defined tornado season — the spring — the risk of tornadoes “never really goes to zero” for most of the year in the Southeast, explained Patrick Marsh of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
He said 39 possible tornadoes were reported across the Southeast from early Saturday into Sunday evening — none immediately confirmed. Of that, 30 were reported in Georgia, four in Mississippi, and one each in Louisiana and South Carolina.
January tornado outbreaks are rare but not unprecedented, particularly in the South. Data from the Storm Prediction Center shows that, over the past decade, the nation has seen an average of 38 tornadoes in January, ranging from a high of 84 in 2008 to just four in 2014.
Jenny Bullard, 19, said she and her parents, Jeff and Carla, are glad to have escaped without major injury after an apparent tornado battered their home in Cook County, causing walls to collapse. They are a farming family dating back generations, living not far from where the mobile homes were destroyed.
The middle section of their brick house was ripped off the slab. A piano was blown out of the house.
She recalled waking up to the sound of hail and then heard her father, calling her name.
“There was a bunch of stuff on top of him and I just started throwing everything I could until I got to him,” she said. Then she and her parents fled.
The young woman went back through the debris for family photos and other belongings. Bricks lay scattered about, alongside their possessions and furniture. Across the street, where the Bullards kept farm equipment in sheds, one shed was blown apart. Two grain silos were blown over.
“It’s a horrible tragedy. But all this stuff can be replaced,” she said. “We can’t replace each other. We’re extremely lucky. My dad is lucky to be alive.”